Voting can be a complicated process for many. The pandemic is exposing that, with many rules only just now being widely discovered for the first time. For instance, North Carolina’s witness requirement on absentee ballots.
For new American citizens, the process can be especially hard to navigate.
It’s a crisp fall morning at a public park in Fletcher. A few steps away from the baseball field and the playground, volunteers are huddled behind a folding table that’s covered with voting information and sample ballots.
Gabby Mendez smiles from behind her facemask and points to the stacks of papers.
“We have everything in Spanish, we have information, the application, and we can also do it online,” she said.
Mendez is with the Hendersonville-based non-profit El Centro. It’s organized ten registration events like these so far. Turnout on this particular day is slim.
“We did everything that we could, like, we posted on social media,” Mendez said. “Most of the Hispanics are working right now, it’s a Saturday. Probably they’re working, it’s cold. We’re trying to do what we can.”
El Centro’s not slowing down. In addition to the outreach, Mendez says they mailed more than 3,000 informational postcards in Spanish to eligible voters in Buncombe and Henderson Counties.
It’s just one example of many efforts across the state to find and mobilize every immigrant who’s eligible to cast a ballot.
Durham-based non-profit North Carolina Asian Americans Together has been translating information for voters into six languages -- Hindi, Urdu, Vietnamese, Korean, Hmong, and Chinese.
Senior Director Ricky Leung says immigrant communities representing different nationalities are united by shared challenges, like language, particularly during the pandemic.
“One of our closest partners is a local Latino organization, and we do learn a lot from each other, and there are definitely a lot of issues and barriers that our communities face,” Leung said.
NCAAT says voter contact remains a large, unmet need among Asian Americans. In the 2016 presidential election, 71 percentage of Asian American voters nationally reported that they were not contacted by either major political party about the election.
That’s particularly significant in a swing state like North Carolina. With more than 200,000 Asian American Pacific Islander voters in the state, NCAAT says they could be a major force in the current election.
Leung co-founded the organization in 2014 primarily to encourage voter turnout among Asian American Pacific Islander communities across the state.
“Growing up in North Carolina and realizing that no one is reaching out to our communities,” Leung said. “So that’s what we’ve been doing since our founding, doing phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, and showing up to festivals”
This year, they’ve also set up a multilingual voter assistance hotline and produced informational videos to help voters fill out absentee ballots.
“My sense is that there’s never been more attention on voting rights, especially for immigrant citizens,” Gunther Peck, Duke University professor of history and public policy, said.
He heads the Hart Leadership Program at the Sanford School of Public Policy, where students are going to great lengths to connect with voters in their primary language and make sure their vote is counted.
“Driving from Durham into Wake County to find and to go to the door of the citizen who doesn’t have a phone number to make sure that they know they have an opportunity to have their ballot counted still,” Peck said. “This is teamwork in involving students and citizens, all of them bilingual, so they can speak and meet voters where they are.”
While that may seem like a drastic measure, the program's associate director Lalita Kaligotla offers a perspective from her native country:
“In India where I’m from, for example, no polling location by law -- and it’s written in the constitution -- can be any further than two kilometers away from a person’s residence,” Kaligotla said. “You have to have access to the polls.”
But you don’t have to look outside the US for models or solutions to improve voter access for non-native voters. Other states, like California, already offer ballots in numerous languages.
“It’s not like the law here is lacking, it’s the fact that the implementation is lagging,” Kaligotla said.
And the barriers go beyond language and transportation. Kaligotla says they can be emotional, too. Among the Latinx-Hispanic population, for instance, fears about putting undocumented relatives at risk has kept some eligible citizens from going to the polls. Some of those fears stem from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s attempts in 2018 to seize voter records in North Carolina.
“You know, many immigrants feeling disconnected from the fabric of our democracy, feeling like perhaps their vote doesn’t matter,” Kaligotla said. “For a variety of reasons, including issues of representation. When people don’t see people like themselves in elected office, then the incentives to get out and participate in the political process feels lower.”
That’s why she adds, the other part of the representation equation means getting more candidates who reflect the country’s demographics into office.